Monday, April 04, 2016

Does the "Myth of the Sole Inventor" have a true sense of history?

In "Myth of the Sole Inventor [110 Mich. L. Rev. 709 ]," Mark Lemley argues that most inventions are made by more than one group at about the same time:

The overwhelming majority of inventions, including the overwhelming majority of so-called "pioneering" inventions, are in fact developed by individuals or groups working independently at roughly the same time.


Far more common are different groups that struggle with the same incremental problem and achieve the same solution at roughly the same time.


First, many inventions arise in response to consumer demand. If, suddenly, the world wants to participate in online social networks, many people will seek to fill that need, and - absent some large technical barrier - they will likely do so at roughly the same time.


And inventions are quite often made by multiple actors at about the same time.


They are making incremental improvements alongside others tackling the same problem and often coming up with the same solution at about the same time.

In part, the assertion of "same solution" by Lemley is a view of "alternate history," because most of his "same solutions" did not in fact happen. Note however Lemley's approach is somewhat of an "inverted" alternate history. In the more typical alternate history, some historical facts are altered (e.g., Grant dies in the Vicksburg campaign) and the resultant history changes (the Confederacy wins). Lemley assumes that an equivalent simultaneous invention is made and later history does not change. However, Lemley is assuming "same invention" just as much as the alternate historian is assuming "different facts."

As to the light bulb, Sawyer and Mann did not come up with the high resistance filament of Edison at the same time. Glenn Curtiss did not come up with the Wrights' three dimensional control, but copied from their invention. Alternate histories are interesting, such as
Mackinlay Kantor's Civil War story published in Look magazine in 1960. They are interesting, but they are fiction.

Curiously, the television show The Avengers contemplated aspects of turns of history in the episode "A Sense of History."
In the episode, a Professor Henge advocates history as chance or coincidence, much as Professor Lemley suggests inventions will be made by many groups when the conditions are right. Professor Acheson argues for the role of individuals.

As to details, while professors were debating the points, a group of students, led by the archivist/librarian (who has the time to read all the books), took some action. Of the theories, Professor Henge maintains that the great events of history have been the result of chance or coincidence [rats in a maze?], so a student (Pettit) asks him if one man can change the course of history, citing the views of Professor Acheson. Later, during the Rag Week costume ball, each Professor, dressed as Friar Tuck, is clobbered by the Avengers, who have been told that the student group leader will be dressed as Friar Tuck. Grindley, the archivist/librarian, is the leader of the students (and also dressed as Friar Tuck), and is finally also done in by a book, so the show has all academics clobbered by books, perhaps an ironic symbolism. The episode leaves open whether the ideas of Brooms/Carlyon on plans for "Europia" succeed. The show is before the EU and one can judge whether the combined economic force of Europe banished poverty forever.
To followers of the show, "a sense of history" is more remembered for the Robin Hood costume worn by Diana Rigg and a certain joke about a drooping sword.

**From the Shaver article, which defended the Lemley article from some criticism by Katznelson, a Ph.D. engineer:

In The Myth of the Sole Inventor [ 110 Mich. L. Rev. 709 (2012) ], Mark Lemley explores the underappreciated dynamic of "simultaneous invention" and the problems it poses for the conventional economic justifications of patent protection. n69 In case after case, Lemley's article illustrates that multiple inventors working on the same technological problem have arrived at the same solution at nearly the same time. n70


If invention is the product of ordinary engineering work rather than extraordinary labors of genius, why do we award such an enormous prize to the party that achieved it first, if only by a few days? n74


The Myth of the Sole Inventor actually includes the light bulb among its historical examples of simultaneous invention, along the incremental model. n78 Lemley correctly characterizes Edison's [p. 1915] inventive contribution as "an incremental one: one in a long chain of improvements." n79

Footnote 70 states: n70 See id. at 735 (concluding, after a historical analysis, that it is "rare" for one inventor to develop a "wholly new product that no one else achieved at roughly the same time").

At page 1917, Shaver writes: -- The immense market potential of electric light in the household context was widely realized. For electric engineers of the day, the challenge of "subdividing the electric light"-adapting it for domestic use-was an obvious goal, attracting significant attention and effort even before Edison entered the field. n93 --

Shaver never says that anyone (other than Edison) was working with high resistance filaments and parallel circuits in the 1879 time frame, so it is not clear that anyone (other than Edison) achieved that wholly new product at roughly the same time.

Lemley in "Myth" does write

William Shockley's invention of the transistor at Bell Labs appears to have been anticipated by the work of Julius Edgar Lilienfeld. Michael Riordan & Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age 146 (1997). And Herbert Matare and Heinrich Welker invented a "transistron" in Germany during World War II, disclosing their invention in 1948 at about the same time that Bell Labs did. See Paul Rako, Who Invented Something Depends on Your Definition of "Something", Electronics Design, Strategy, News (Feb. 17, 2011), your_definition_of_something_.php.

However, see a 2005 article in IEEE Spectrum:

It is somewhat interesting to note that the transistron inventors were working at a Westinghouse subsidiary.
Westinghouse and Edison fought the AC/DC circuit wars.


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